The Brisbane Syndrome

January 21, 2012

Are reporters merely stenographers?

Notes on the New York Times Public Editor Brisbane’s column  concerning the journalist’s job: is a reporter merely a Stenographer?

Judging from the public’s reaction to Brisbane’s column, one question among many, is, “how did Brisbane get that stupid (or perchance, uniformed)?” One incredulous reader asked, “Is this a joke?”

That same thought popped into my mind one morning in March 2001.  I was interviewing Jim Ryan, who at the time was the anchor of FOX’s morning show “Good Day New York.”  Jim had worked for the Associated Press, NBC and now Fox News for more than 30 years.

I brought up a story I thought should be looked into and asked him why I hadn’t seen it reported.

He said, straight-faced, “Oh you’re talking about enterprise reporting - there are times when a reporter might do that.”

Enterprise Reporting seems to occur infrequently. The term refers to digging into something or “asking a question” outside the scope of the highly managed way news stories are reported on a given day; the same stories which will be mirrored on every major network, cable  news channel, news radio, and in the national newspapers around the country on that day.

Jim smoothly implied that my question was really not particularly relevant.  I thought “Is he joking, or is it me who doesn’t get it?” I had been introduced to Jim by his cousin, an old friend of mine, at a holiday dinner.  Turned out we had both been brought up in Parkchester in the Bronx.  We ended up at his apartment over-looking Lincoln Center till 4 AM on that night.

Now on this day in 2001 I was taping at that apartment, partly because FOX doesn’t allow outside interviews of its Journalists on its corporate premises.

Watching his non answers, I realized: “He knows. He has to play dumb”. At the end of the editing process, I used little of the interview in “Orwell Rolls in His Grave”. In the scene that did make the cut – his expression tells the story.

The phrase that fits is called “self censorship.”  Most TV journalists will not keep a high profile job for very long in the Corporate News Media unless playing dumb becomes as second nature as driving a car. In numerous stories or particular lines of inquiry, unspoken boundaries are drawn and the reporters know them.  A certain term used is: “There’s no interest in that story”.

Who’s not interested?

Robert McChesney

Renowned Media Professor Robert McChesney explained how this  methodology of journalism came about.

“In 1850, if a Governor said something stupid the reporter would say I‘m not going to print that, it’s stupid. But as journalism tried to legitimize itself, there came to be a reliance on Official Sources. What that means is that people in power became the assignment editors of journalism, if they don’t want to talk about something it’s almost impossible for the reporter to bring it up”

The result is that the media narrative can be manipulated.  A certain source, often a tainted one, can propel a story into the mainstream.  Consider the run up to the Iraq war, the media repeats the story Yellowcake uranium, or an image, mushroom cloud and…

If those in power want to kill a story the technique is simply not to discuss it.

Vincent Bugliosi – the Charles Manson prosecutor who wrote the best-selling book “Helter Skelter”, and then wrote a book on the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the vote counting in the 2000 election – told me: “Whenever I write a new book, all the networks have me on. With this book on the Supreme Court Decision to stop the recount, none of them have called”.

Have any of the networks ever done an anniversary special on the Supreme Court ‘s decision to stop the vote counting in Florida, in the 2000 Presidential Election?  An historic event, a Court decision that was footnoted as “not to be used as legal precedent”.  Think the public might be interested in what actually happened?

Or how about a program on the episode of the vote recount itself, about the questions raised and the lessons learned?

The corporate media “is not interested in that story.”  The fact that the 5-week episode of the Florida Recount could be successfully relegated to the memory hole was the PRECEDENT.  It showed what you can get away with when you control the questions, and the Judiciary.

But if the public is interested in a story, won’t the prospect of advertising revenue associated with such programming make the networks broadcast those stories? Normally, large numbers of prospective viewers (manna to advertisers) drives programming. But in this case, that programming would inherently pose very basic questions, and not giving these questions a platform and voice is even more important than advertising revenue.

This is the paradox which proves intent.

The Anchors and Wise Pundits will then titter: “The Nation went through a lot, what is the public value of dragging us through this or that story again”

Really?  Are you joking?

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